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Films as Memoir: Why Are So Many Directors Making Movies About Their Childhood?

By Ryan O’Toole

Kenneth Branagh and Jude Hill on the set of Belfast

Photo: The Guardian - Source

Federico Fellini once said “All art is autobiographical.” In many ways, he is right. Every movie is about its director, in one way or another. In the most obvious cases, directors make movies about the art of filmmaking and explore their own career struggles — Robert Altman’s send up of Hollywood in The Player or in Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s metatextual Adaptation. One step removed from this is artistic projection, using any career or industry to express ideas on artistry and passion. It only takes swapping car racing with filmmaking in Ford v. Ferrari to understand James Mangold’s thoughts on the studio system. And, of course, directors need not only bring their ideas on their careers to the table. They are human and have emotions similar to their characters. Directors bring their own emotional pasts and empathy to every film they make. It’s impossible not to. Even fantastic films set in fictional worlds do this: Black Panther pulls from Ryan Coogler’s own past to inform its characters. Ethan Hawke’s character in Before Sunset put it quite nicely: “Well, I mean, isn’t everything autobiographical? I mean, we all see the world through our own tiny keyhole, right?”

But while most movies are about their directors in indirect ways, obscured through layers of fiction, some movies are more upfront about their autobiographical nature. A lot of the movies from Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach are pulling from their own lives, their relationships, and their struggles. But there’s an even more specific version of autofiction that directors seem to be drawn to: movies about their own childhood.

A lot of directors seem to gravitate towards making a movie about growing up, about the environment and the people that made them who they are. These are intensely intimate looks inside of a director’s life. Some earlier examples of this are François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and subsequent returns to the character Antoine Doinel as an exploration of his own life growing up in France and Spike Lee’s Crooklyn written with the help of his sisters to explore their family and their childhood in Brooklyn.

Spike Lee on the set of Crooklyn

Photo: IMDb - Source

But there seems to be a massive surge in this type of movie, with Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast story of life in Northern Ireland during the Troubles based on Branagh’s own life — on the near horizon. Steven Spielberg is also in the process of filming his own autofiction, The Fablemans. Other recent examples include Lee Isaac Chung’s introspective look at the immigrant experience in Minari, Mike Mills’ love letter to his mother and the women of his life in 20th Century Women, and Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, a grandiose look into the undersung hero of his childhood, focusing on a maid in Mexico City in the 1970s.

But why do so many directors seem drawn to making movies about their life? Is it ego? And why are so many of them specifically focused on their childhood?

To answer the second part of that question, making a movie about childhood is the least egotistical way to make a movie about yourself. For starters, they’re never really making a movie about themselves, they’re making a movie about their childhood self, which is an entirely different person. This may seem like a semantic distinction, but it’s important to draw that line because these movies are about what made them who they are. The focus lies in the people around them. Often, the most important and impactful characters are never the director's surrogate. It’s usually the parents, or in the case of Roma, the maid. So far Mike Mills, he wanted to make a movie about growing up in Santa Barbara in the 1970s not for self indulgence, but rather to paint a loving portrait of his mother. The child character that represents the filmmaker in these movies is simply a lens in which to view the world around them. And what a beautiful world it is.

Alfonso Cuarón and Yalitza Aparicio on the set of Roma

Photo: Time - Source

Often the best moments while watching a movie is feeling the director’s hand guiding you through the world that they’ve built. It’s feeling Ryan Coogler’s own personal history growing up in Oakland influencing the way he tells T’Challa and Killmonger’s story. But if Black Panther is frosted glass, with Coogler’s light able to shine through the refractive nature of superhero storytelling, then autofiction is as clear as day. It isn’t trying to hide its own emotional center at all. These are films with their hearts on their sleeves.

Films are all about empathy. They are about connecting with characters and the world they are living in. A director is always bringing their own lives to the film, but when a movie is explicitly about their own mother or father, it’s much easier to connect to those characters and fully flesh out the story. You’re pulling from a lifetime of memories. In an interview following the release of 20th Century Women, Mike Mills said “"I didn’t want to just show the good parts of [my mother]. I tried to show some of the contradictions, or the parts that disappointed me, or that I feel unresolved about." 20th Century Women is an introspective film exploring all aspects of his unknowable mother and one of the most lived-in portraits ever put to film.

Autofiction films are some of the most personal that have been made in recent memory. They are home to some of the most specific and sensitive moments as well as the most human characters, like Youn Yuh-Jung in Minari, Yalitza Aparicio in Roma, or Annette Bening in 20th Century Women. In early reviews, Belfast is currently a frontrunner for Best Picture and is being considered as Branagh’s most personal film yet and it’s easy to see why.


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